The Religion of Guns

Posted January 5, 2008

Categories: Articles

Americans worship guns. We stockpile nuclear weapons, we spend hundreds of billions of dollars on conventional weapons, and we keep handguns under our pillows. Not me, you might say: never touched a gun, never will. But you can still be part of the religion without visiting the church. Consider all the video games that involve shooting. And all the movies that center around gunfights in the same way that medieval paintings focus on the life of Jesus. And all the plastic guns our kids have. Then there’s our $2,000 annual per-capita share of the Pentagon budget — that’s a hefty contribution to the collection plate.

We use all manner of spurious rationales to justify our gun theology. It’s a dangerous world out there, we say, and even though we spend as much on weaponry as the rest of the world combined, we need still more. At home, gun advocates hold up the Constitution’s Second Amendment: “A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” — even though the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the amendment protects only the rights of state militias, not individuals, to bear arms.

It’s bad enough that we’re awash in guns in the United States. But we also evangelize. We sell guns as aggressively overseas as a preacher hands out leaflets on a street corner. At Foreign Policy In Focus (, we’ve published many articles on rising U.S. arms exports. But this week, FPIF columnist Frida Berrigan reports on an equally insidious problem: our exports of handguns. Consider the case of Mexico, where guns are fueling an epidemic of violence and death. “According to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, more than 90% of guns seized after shootings or police raids in Mexico or at the border can be traced back to the United States,” Berrigan writes. “Last year alone, 2,455 weapons traces concluded that the guns had been purchased in the United States.”

I’m writing this from South Korea, where the citizens frankly think that we are all militant fundamentalists when it comes to guns. In South Korea, gun control laws are about as strict as they get. “When a gun is found on the street here,” my friend here tells me, “it becomes the focus of national attention.” That might change, of course. It wasn’t long ago that bread was an unusual food here — that is, until the United States flooded the market with wheat beginning in the 1950s as a food assistance program that also just happened to help out U.S. agribusiness. If American suppliers and the unregulated market have their way, South Koreans will someday enjoy all the privileges of gun ownership — including the privilege of getting shot by accident on the street, by lunatics in crowded suburban malls, or by suicidal loners on school campuses.

Berrigan’s column generated a load of anti-gun control responses, several of which suggested that a disarmed population would lead directly to tyranny and even genocide. South Koreans would be surprised to learn of this correlation, since they overthrew tyranny and today live in a democracy, all without guns. I, too, was surprised to learn that bullets, not ballots, are the cornerstone of U.S. democracy. The Aztecs believed that human sacrifice was necessary for the stability of their society. Today, we scoff at this “primitive” belief though we cling to our guns as surely as the Aztecs clung to their obsidian knives. Michael Moore chronicled this obsession in his film Bowling for Columbine. Lars von Trier lampooned it in the brilliant film, Dear Wendy.

Documentaries and satire are fine and dandy. But who will have the courage to stand up to bullies with guns — whether it’s the National Rifle Association or the Pentagon — and get them to, in the words of Andy Partridge and the band XTC, “melt the guns, never more to fire them; melt the guns, never more desire them”?

Who will finally be able to convince Americans that the god of guns is the god that failed?

Hot Button Issue #2

Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, and we’ll send you some guns in return. Ooh, except, well, we don’t really want your tired and poor and homeless any more. Even if your tired and poor turn out to be vital to our economy. Even if it was our free-trade policies that dumped cheap food in your country and drove farmers off the land and into our country to pick our vegetables and cut up our cattle.

The Department of Homeland Security has been rounding up “illegal aliens” and deporting them by the busload, most recently the first of a group of folks who had been working in a meatpacking plant in Postville, Iowa. “Hungry and desperate workers go to jail and get deported,” writes FPIF contributor David Bacon. “The government protects employers and seeks to turn a family-based immigration system into a managed labor supply for business. Yet national political campaigns say less and less about it. Immigrant Latino and Asian communities feel increasingly afraid and frustrated. Politicians want their votes, but avoid talking about the rising wave of arrests, imprisonment, and deportations.” Read his article Silence on Immigration to find out what the next president should do on the immigration issue.

The impact of these deportations is felt throughout Mexico — and the financial crisis is only making matters worse. “Millions of Mexicans rely on money sent home by family members working in the United States to meet their basic food and other needs,” write FPIF contributors Manuel Pérez-Rocha and FPIF senior analyst Sarah Anderson in When the U.S. Gets a Cold, Mexico Gets Pneumonia. “But this source of income is drying up. In the U.S. construction industry alone, Latino workers have lost nearly 250,000 jobs over the past year, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. The Mexican government’s most recent figures show that ‘remittances,’ the wages these workers send to their home country, fell sharply during the first eight months of 2008, from $16.2 billion to $15.5 billion. And that was before the September meltdown.”

Mexico isn’t the only source of immigrants. “Hurricanes Gustav and Ike pummeled Cuba, and the country suffered disastrous losses,” write FPIF contributors Saul Landau and Nelson P. Valdés in Why the U.S. Must Help Cuba. “If it doesn’t quickly rebuild its productive capacity and restore housing — some half a million homes were destroyed or seriously damaged — the United States can expect a tsunami consisting of hundreds of thousands of migrants.” They add, “The latest humanitarian crisis in Cuba presents the Bush administration with a rare opportunity to stave off a looming migration crisis here and simultaneously boost the U.S. image abroad. Unfortunately, the Bush government seems inclined to pass on the opportunity.”

Then There’s Iraq

The Iraq War is driving the United States toward bankruptcy. One result of the financial crisis should logically be the rapid removal of U.S. troops from Iraq. The Bush administration is indeed negotiating a “timetable for withdrawal” with the al-Maliki government. But as FPIF contributor Phyllis Bennis points out in Tenuous Agreement on Maintaining U.S. Troops in Iraq, the version of the agreement that has so far been leaked lacks any “serious U.S. commitment to a timetable for full withdrawal of all troops, even by the end of 2011. Paragraph 5 of the same article explicitly authorizes the Iraqi government to request U.S. forces to remain in Iraq — for ‘the purposes of training and support of the Iraqi security forces.’ Such ‘support’ of the U.S.-trained, U.S.-armed, and still U.S.-dependent Iraqi military could in practice mean any military action the Pentagon wants to carry out.”

The administration’s status-quo approach goes beyond Iraq and crosses party lines as well. “Americans tried to change course in 2006 by replacing the Republican Congress with a Democratic-controlled House and Senate,” writes FPIF senior analyst Antonia Juhasz in Big Oil’s Last Stand. “Democrats pledged in their election campaigns to take action against the oil industry, climate change, and the war in Iraq — all three of which are intimately and rightly connected in the public’s mind. The Democrats failed to deliver. Far too often, Big Oil’s money appeared to be the reason why.”

Oil, too, underlies the conflict that recently broke out between Russia and Georgia, argues FPIF contributor Herbert Bix. It was a war that highlighted “the increasingly fierce competition between U.S. and Russian corporations for control of Caspian Sea and Central Asian oil and gas resources,” he writes in Challenging U.S. Global Dominance. “Georgians, Ossetians, Azerbaijanis, Kazakhs, and other peoples in the eastern Caspian Sea basin are hapless pawns in this continuous struggle, affecting their territorial and ethnic conflicts in ways they cannot control. The struggle over oil and gas has led the U.S. Central Command, originally established to deal with Iran, to extend its operations from the Middle East to the oil-and-gas-rich Central Asian and Caspian Sea states of Turkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, thus underlining the geopolitics that lay behind the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and now the Russo-Georgian war.”

North Korea and Israel

North Korea is off the State Sponsors of Terrorism list and negotiations to end its nuclear program are back on track. But don’t expect smooth sailing in the next administration, whoever happens to occupy the White House.

“John McCain has expressed concern over the removal of North Korea from the list of terror-sponsoring nations and is likely to push for a harder line on the North,” writes FPIF contributor Scott Bruce in The Race to Denuclearize North Korea. “The Arizona senator has called on the United States to make North Korea’s missile arsenal, human rights record, and abduction of Japanese citizens issues at the talks. Barack Obama called de-listing North Korea a ‘modest step’ but has also demanded a very robust verification regime and threatened to suspend energy assistance and impose new sanctions if the North refused to comply. The Democratic nominee has publicly noted his willingness to increase bilateral contact with the North, but would be under considerable political pressure to maintain a firm line with regimes like North Korea.”

Obama’s firm support of Israel, which has resulted from similarly significant political pressure, still isn’t enough to satisfy some of his strongest critics. As FPIF senior analyst Stephen Zunes writes in Distorting Obama’s Views on Israel, “the Republican Jewish Coalition has launched a series of ads in Washington Jewish Week, Detroit Jewish News, and other major Jewish newspapers across the United States claiming that the stridently pro-Israel Obama is actually ‘reckless,’ ‘naïve,’ and ‘dangerous’ when it comes to Israel and its security. One ad not-so-subtly warns of ‘tragic outcomes for the Jewish people’ in a headline over a photo of Obama speaking in Berlin.”

“Gun control equals genocide.” “Obama equals genocide.” Can the political discourse sink any lower?

FPIF, October 28, 2008

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